No one in the Eastern Conference had a better summer than Celtics president Danny Ainge, and all he did was retain a couple of his own free agents, draft a project late in the first round, and bring a veteran expat back from overseas. There were some rumors, as there always are with the Celtics, but they weren’t as breathless as past summers.
Bringing (almost) everyone back from a 55-win team that came within a fourth quarter of reaching the NBA Finals despite the absence of Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving was always the priority. Even those injuries had a silver lining because they helped accelerate the development of Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Terry Rozier during last season’s postseason run. Assuming Irving and Hayward return to health, the Celtics will go into the 2018 season as the prohibitive favorites in the East.
The key to the Celtics’ offseason was retaining Marcus Smart on a reported 4-year deal worth $52 million. That’s a decent amount of money for a restricted free agent who wasn’t yielding offers in a tight market, but there’s a method to Ainge’s madness.
The money is good and the years are long, which should help soothe Smart’s frustration over a process that didn’t go according to his plan. Also, Smart earned that contract with his fearless play and emerging leadership skills. Backcourt Draymond never complains about coming off the bench or doing the dirtiest of the dirty work, which is a great example for a team that figures to go 10-11 deep.
Beyond that, it’s a great contract to have on the books if they choose to pursue another high-level star in trade next summer. (Hint: rhymes with Anthony Davis.) The C’s would have had trouble finding a medium-range salary to add to a blockbuster trade package, considering so many of their players are on max deals or rookie contracts.
Aron Baynes is the other veteran to return, agreeing to return on a two-year deal for $11 million. Baynes was key contributor last season, providing frontcourt muscle and locker room leadership. While the C’s play small as much as any team in the league, having a selfless big man to throw at Embiid and Jonas Valanciunas is a must.
Along with Al Horford and Daniel Theis, the C’s are set in the middle. That will allow first round pick Robert Williams to become well acquainted with the scenic drive up I-95 to Portland, Maine. If they get anything from him or Guerschon Yabusele, it’s a bonus.
The short-term ramification of bringing Baynes and Smart back is that the C’s will go over the luxury tax. That’s a problem only in terms of the financial hit ownership is will to take to keep this team together. As first-time offenders under the tax plan, a $6 million bill is merely the cost of doing business to compete for a championship.
The real tax issue comes into play next summer, when Horford and Irving can opt out of their deals and Rozier hits restricted free agency. A championship run takes precedence over tomorrow’s concerns, as it should.
There are some potential landmines. Rozier exceeded expectations as an emergency starter after Irving was lost for the season, and will now have to contend with a backup role. Brown and Tatum may also have to accept supporting roles with Hayward back from his injury. We still don’t know how Irving and Hayward will complement each other on the floor.
But the season is long and these are good problems to have. After years of planning, the C’s are finally playing for right now, and the summer could not have gone any better.
It wasn’t what Ainge did that made his offseason so successful, it was what happened around him. Even when his itinerary is light, everything keeps comes up Danny.
Start in Cleveland, where LeBron James is finally gone. Celtics fans love to bring up the times they knocked LeBron out of the playoffs, but the King had returned the favor in five straight series and three of the last four years. No one’s sure what to make of Cleveland at the moment, but its days as a contender are over.
Additionally, the Sixers did not succeed in landing a veteran star to pair with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. They got a meeting with LeBron, which was more than could be said for Paul George, and never got into serious bidding for Kawhi Leonard. While the young core will be another year older and better for sure, Philly is essentially the same team that lost in five to the depleted C’s in the second round of the playoffs.
The Raptors did add Leonard, and that makes them dangerous. The Raps have tended to be a problem for the Celtics over the years, and if Leonard is right, they would be a worthy foe. Still, the question of his health and mindset make it impossible to predict how he and Toronto will function together.
Adding Leonard also comes at the expense of franchise cornerstone DeMar DeRozan, who was traded to San Antonio. Dwane Casey is off to Detroit, leaving the unproven Nick Nurse at the helm. All that uncertainty makes Toronto the X-Factor in the East. Beyond that, who can tell?
The rest of the East is either intriguing or desolate, depending on your levels of optimism. The Pacers ought to be a pain to deal with, and the Bucks brought in veteran coach Mike Budenholzer to continue Giannis Antetokounmpo’s development into a top-5 player. The Heat will be solid as always, the Pistons should be better, and the Wizards will be enigmatic.
But assuming a return to good health for both Hayward and Irving, there’s nothing that should preclude the C’s from returning to the Finals for the first time in almost a decade. That’s getting way ahead of things, of course, but that’s what we do in late July. With everyone back on board, these Celtics have a chance to be special.